The Corrosive Politics of Virtue

The most influential men in America met in Boston.
The nation, they agreed, faced a terrible moral crisis: rampant substance abuse,
sex (even the old taboo against naked breasts seemed to be gone), illegitimacy.
Public schools were languishing, the pursuit of profits was appalling, the
explosion of lawsuits completely out of hand. Worst of all, parents were doing a
terrible job of raising their kids—not enough discipline. "Most of the
evils" that afflict our society, reported the conference, stem from "defects
as to family government." The gathering published a famous call for moral
reform in 1679.

More than 300 years later, the old jeremiad is still doing a brisk business.
From every political quarter we hear the same story—moral failures vex the
nation. Almost no one in public life demurs. The warnings of spiritual decline
sound vaguely plausible. Besides, why oppose calls for more virtuous behavior?

This essay suggests why. The moral diagnosis is wrong and its political
consequences are pernicious. The moralizing divides Americans into a righteous "us"
and a malevolent "them." Once those lines are drawn, you can forget
about social justice, progressive thinking, or universal programs. Instead, the
overarching policy question becomes "How do we protect ourselves and our
children?" Never mind health care—build more jails.

Contemporary moralizing stands in a long, unhappy American political
tradition. When economic and social problems are transformed into declining
moral standards, the hunt is on for immoral people who threaten the public good.
There are always plenty of suspects (though the contemporary list is
particularly skewed toward poor people's sins). In the tumult of their
witch-hunts, Americans ignore an alternative moral tradition that aspires, with
Abraham Lincoln, "to touch . . . the better angels of our nature."


Today, the calls to virtue sound across the full spectrum of American
culture. At the highbrow end, academics like James Q. Wilson (The Moral
) and Gertrude Himmelfarb (The De-Moralization of Society) set
out, as Wilson puts it, "to help people recover the confidence with which
they once spoke about virtue and morality."

Among the middlebrow, the footnotes start to melt away and exhortation takes
over. William Bennett, Ben Wattenberg, Amitai Etzioni, and many others have
enjoyed success thumping rectitude to general audiences. "SHAME,"
blares the cover of Newsweek. The subtitle tells the story: "Intolerance
has gotten a bad rap in recent years, but there should be a way to condemn
behavior that's socially destructive."

Finally, down at the other end sits the really big morality market.
Fundamentalist and evangelical books (and tapes and videos) offer rousing
sermons, exhortations, and warnings. Preachers like Tim and Beverly LaHaye
construct a vivid narrative of America that can be summed up by the titles they
have published in the past three years: Faith of our Founding Fathers,
The Spirit Filled Family, A Nation Without A Conscience, and
What Everyone Should Know About Homosexuality.

Put aside the differences in tone, sophistication, and packaging, and what
you find is a startling convergence in the message. From prestigious academics
to fundamentalist preachers, the moralists offer very different audiences a
consistent narrative about American politics and culture. It is a story in which
good people try to cling to their morals despite an overwhelming, sneering,
secular tide.

When "ordinary men and women . . . wish to make moral judgments,"
writes Wilson, "they must do so privately and in whispers." Himmelfarb
wonders "whether the million purchasers of William Bennett's The Book
of Virtues
had to overcome their initial embarrassment in order to utter
that word." Once upon a time, the dirty pornographer or the embarrassed
condom purchaser skulked about. But with the great revolution of American mores,
it is now those who would be good who sneak red-faced while pornography is
everywhere and condoms (but not prayers!) are passed around in school. Reading
across the literary spectrum, the tone moves from tart irony to raw outrage—much
of it directed at the federal government for buying condoms while barring Christ
from public schools. But the constant message boils down to this: Our society
has abandoned the morals that once guided us.

And there will be hell to pay. The trends, writes Himmelfarb, bode "even
worse for the future than for the present." Or, as Reverend LaHaye puts it
in The Battle for the Mind: "For over seventy-five years, judges,
legislators, governors, mayors and presidents have introduced legislation based
on [secular humanism] which is destructive of morality and family solidarity. We
have arrived at the gates of Sodom and Gomorrah." Recall that God burned
Sodom and Gomorrah to cinders in His wrath over the people's iniquity (in fact,
it's at Sodom where the Bible first raises the specter of brimstone and fire).

How do we avoid that kind of fate? In Strength For the Journey,
Jerry Falwell puts it directly: God needs us to "save the nation from
inward moral decay."

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Has America really developed a secular culture that runs down morality and
deprecates religion? No. The charge is popular fiction. Every available measure
suggests people in the United States continue to talk about God with a gusto
unmatched in the Western world. G.K. Chesterton once described the United States
as a nation with the soul of a church. The description remains apt.

According to surveys by the Gallup Organization, 95 percent of Americans
profess a faith in God—a number that has scarcely budged in years. (The
figure is 76 percent in Britain and 52 percent in Sweden.) Or take the common
polling routine that probes for belief in the Ten Commandments. Again, no
Western nation beats the United States. Getting back to sex, for example, 87
percent of Americans tell pollsters that adultery is "always wrong"
compared to 48 percent in France. More than three-quarters of the population
belong to a church, a steady 40 percent say they went this week, and 9 percent
claim to go to church "several times a week." Only the last figure,
reported by the National Opinion Research Center, has changed much in the past
two decades—and it is up 30 percent.

The measures of American faith stretch on and on. More than one in four
Americans owns at least five Bibles. The Family Channel is one of the top ten
cable channels, the Christian Broadcast Network claims a million viewers a day.
The pope sells out whenever he prays in an American stadium. So does Billy
Graham. And mobs of weeping men go to Promise Keepers rallies and roar approval
to variations of the following: Jesus is Number One and we are on His team and
we are going to win. (Check out the glossy Promise Keepers magazine next
time you are at the supermarket.)

Nobody out there is blushing when they whisper "Virtues"
to the bookseller.

Nor is religious conviction in America anything new. So why all the
breathless moralizing about secular humanism, bad behavior, and looming
perdition? To understand, we have to look more directly at the social and
political project that lurks beneath the crusade to make us good.


The vice squad has constructed a simple story. Most Americans are good, but
we are surrounded by rampant immorality. And that tide of misbehavior threatens
America in fundamental ways. The jeremiad has three effects.

First, the moralizing reassures. Good people are not to blame for social
troubles or economic tribulations. Quite the contrary, the entire message
encourages and comforts moral folks (who manifest their morality by buying the
books and calling the toll-free numbers in the first place). "Most of us
have a moral sense," writes Wilson. The message resonates precisely because
most Americans do consider themselves decent, religious, moral.

Second, the moralizing message drafts readers into a political fight. Each
preacher would muster us into a somewhat different battle line in the great
American culture war: crime, illegitimacy, divorce (Wilson); crime, welfare,
educational discipline, affirmative action (Wattenberg); crime, welfare, teen
pregnancy (Newsweek); Satan, moral permissiveness, abortion, drugs

Third, the message engages an enemy. And with this we arrive at the crux of
the matter. The effect of all this sermonizing is to construct an often shadowy,
immoral "other." These bad people explain why life is hard or why
times are confusing or why America is not what it used to be. Some, like the
fundamentalist preachers, name names with relish: homosexuals, abortionists,
welfare mothers. Others try to pick more carefully. Wattenberg says the battle
is about crime and welfare (which all good people agree on) and not about
abortion and sexual preference (where his own friends no doubt disagree).

The political result is a great division: a virtuous us, a vicious them. "They"
threaten us. "They" are ominous, cruel, and depraved. (I'm not making
these words up.) In the real world of political passions, fine distinctions
among the issues (like Wattenberg's) get lost in the tumult. The outcry against
sin leads, willy-nilly, to the fight against sinners. What we get is the logic
of the witch-hunt. The moral framing of our social troubles—good us, evil
them—permits leaders (and demagogues) to cash in with whatever enemy
resonates among the people (more on just who that really is in a moment).

To be sure, every author I have named would be appalled at talk of
witch-hunts. (Almost every Puritan minister was appalled by what went on in
Salem in 1692.) But what they have done is framed our politics as a moral crisis
that threatens the nation. (Listen to the echoes: "An army of devils is
horribly broke in upon the . . . people of God," wrote Cotton Mather about
the witches as their trials went on and on.) Leave it to political leaders,
angry voters, and less honorable intellectuals to take it from there.

Of course, moral and religious divisions mark most societies. And Americans
have long been split between what sociologist James David Hunter calls orthodox
perspectives (there is one truth for everyone) and progressive views (truth is
contingent, people have their own values). What is different about the great
moments of moral conflict is their primacy. The culture war goes front and
center on the political stage. Today's moralizers have successfully filled the
Great Enemy Vacuum left by the end of the Cold War. The fate of the nation now
seems to rest on moral uplift. Ironically, our politics get most ugly precisely
when values come to matter most.

What is most startling about the contemporary moral cry is its bias. The
celebration of virtue stops at the market's edge. The lamentations about lost
values are directed largely at poor people. There is scarcely a word about what
the privileged owe their society. This gospel runs lightly over the corporal
works of mercy or all that trouble in the temple between Jesus and the money
changers. Today, the apostles of virtue offer almost no sermons on loyalty
toward workers, obligations toward the poor, or the greed of some corporate

Where are the moralizers when Fleet Finance gets caught in "predatory
lending practices" (that means lying to the customers about their interest
rates)? And Fleet, New England's largest bank, managed to duck an even worse
charge, "equity theft" (that's stealing from the customers). On a
still grander scale, the savings-and-loan fiasco involved plenty of moral
meltdown along with economic miscalculation. Yet scarcely a word from the
political pulpits. The wrath is reserved for bad kids and their moms, not
bankers or CEOs.

Why? Partially because the values movement is about explaining popular
anxiety. Criminal delinquents make an ominous, predatory other. More important,
they fit neatly into a picture of American troubles that conservatives framed
long ago: The lazy, self-indulgent, criminal poor are responsible for their own
troubles, the growth of liberal welfare government, and the dwindling
opportunities for the hard-working, moral us.

Inside this worldview, even the stingy contemporary welfare state is
insupportable. Charity means tough love. The kinds of policies that meet the
need run to more police, tougher sentences, chain gangs, and the return of death
penalties. After all, the good of the nation is at stake.

What is lost is the image of shared fate against common troubles. Benedict
Anderson writes that the very idea of a nation rests on "imagined
communities"—an idea that people share a common experience, a common
fate, and common values. When liberals call for universal programs, they are
tapping into precisely such a political construction.

Moral politics wrecks the universalist impulse. Danger is lurking right at
home, within our own communities. Programs that provide everyone with, say,
health care, fund the very delinquents that threaten our peace.

Precisely that suspicion exploded on the Clinton administration's health
reform project. I heard the bang while debating a moderate Republican senator
who opposed the president's plan. Toward the end of the session, the senator
abruptly turned to face me. His body language said, "OK, now let's quit
kidding around."

And here's what followed: "Look, Professor, you can't expect the
hard-working people of suburban Cook County to go into the same health care
alliance as the crack heads in the city of Chicago." The kicker came when I
turned to the audience, all set to joke aside this fatuous dichotomy. What I saw
was a roomful of sobered liberals. "Yes," they were thinking, "that
is a problem." Our imaginary community—struggling together over a
troubled health care system—had vanished. Now it was a hard-working us and
a drug-abusing them. "Hey," I yelped, "those uninsured Chicago
people are college students and hard-working nurses and taxi drivers doing
double shifts and single moms holding down two jobs. . . ." No dice. In
fact, it only got worse. Crack heads and single moms.


It goes deeper than defeating new social programs. Moral panics erode
liberalism itself. Remember, liberalism grew out of the bloody European
religious wars; its early proponents hoped to get the religious fights out of
politics by protecting private choices and individual rights. Liberalism, writes
Steven Holmes ["The Liberal Idea," TAP, Fall 1991], insists
that "no individual can claim to have [political] motives that are morally
superior to his neighbors." Or in the inelegant patois of economics, we all
maximize our own utilities.

The United States may have the most liberal political rules on the planet,
but moral dangers introduce an often illiberal political style. Politics spill
into the private sphere. Rights and protections fail to hold. After all, someone
is acting in wrong and dangerous ways. Their misbehavior threatens good people.
Moral politics would rule the group, their goals, or the way they act right out
of the national community. (Yes, of course, there is another moral tradition,
which we'll get to.)

The illiberal urge gets particularly intense when sins are projected onto
racial or ethnic groups. The underlying political question becomes: Are those
strange people going to slip their moral aberrations into our cultural

In a society as diverse and changing as this one, moral perils come along
all the time. Nineteenth-century mobs often rioted over the growing number of
Catholics, occasionally torching those dubious convents full of unmarried woman
at the beck of unmarried priests. Chinese men allegedly used opium to seduce
white women, prompting a panic and early drug controls beginning in 1877. Even
social reformers like Jacob Riis professed disgust at the "ages of
senseless idolatry, mere grub worship" that left "John Chinaman"
incapable of anything so "gentle" or "unselfish" as
Christianity. This prejudice barred Chinese immigrants from naturalization until
1952. Theodore Roosevelt's mentor on immigrants, sociologist E.A. Ross, took an
inventory that scored Jews as "moral cripples with dwarfed souls,"
while Italians threatened the cities with "their coarse peasant philosophy
of sex."

These strangers, and many others, all brought depraved practices to America.
In resisting the moral dangers—or more accurately, in flailing at the
stereotypes—Americans compromised their liberal principles. The real danger
lay not in bad men but in bigoted reactions.

Which brings us to race. Nowhere has the tension
between rights and morals been more intense. From the slaveholding start, white
Americans justified racial suppression by imagining a black immorality that had
to be controlled. Powerful stereotypes reasserted themselves across American
history, both before and after the Civil War. The most troubling aspect of the
new moralizing is the old racial imagery lurking just below the rhetorical
surface. In many ways, the contemporary imagery of an immoral "other"
recalls the racial constructions that swamped American liberalism with Jim Crow
laws a century ago.

Political scientists usually tell the Jim Crow story by analyzing its
politics. Congress repealed the laws that implemented the Civil War amendments
(1893); the Supreme Court accepted segregation (with Plessy v. Ferguson,
1896); the southern states held conventions that put the Jim Crow laws into
place (1895-1905). What is far less often observed is how these maneuvers rested
on moral stigma.

White southerners constructed an image of the former slaves as morally
unprepared for freedom. The calumny included a standard roster of vices—laziness,
dishonesty, thieving, political corruption. But the heart of the matter,
endlessly repeated, was the supposed sexual lust of black men. In his popular
history, The Tragic Era, Claude Bowers reported the prejudice as fact: "Rape
is the foul daughter of Reconstruction." As Bowers told it, the story ended
happily, virtue triumphant. When "the Klan began to ride . . . white women
felt some sense of security."

The illiberal stereotype of dangerous, immoral African Americans gained wide
currency—in the North as well as the South, in academic history, social
science, and popular culture. All elevated the fiction of black lust (and the
necessary discipline imposed by beleaguered whites through organizations like
the Ku Klux Klan) into the standard historical narrative.

An almost hysterical portrait runs through the popular culture of the
period. One scene from Thomas Dixon's best-selling The Leopard's Spots,
set in 1865 but published in 1902, illustrates the point. The daughter of a
heroic Confederate veteran is getting married. Suddenly, a group of burly black
men in federal army uniforms (their eyes red with lust, all the power of
Washington backing their depravity) burst in upon the wedding party. They seize
the terrified bride and carry her off into the woods. The young bridegroom
proves his manhood—he grabs a rifle and shoots his wife in the head before
the black men can do the unspeakable. The father is overwhelmed with gratitude.
"You saved my little gal. I want to shake hands with you." Repeating
the same line as historians like Bowers, Dixon portrays the Klan as heroic
defenders of white virtue. His The Clansman, written in the following
year, was the basis for D.W. Griffith's celebrated 1915 film, The Birth of a

Progressive social scientists, their heads stuffed with misapplications of
Darwin, repeated and enlarged the stereotype. Frederick Hoffman, a German-born
actuary (and therefore, he avers, without prejudice on race matters), comes to
the following conclusion in his highly influential Race Traits of the
American Negro
: "All the facts prove that a low standard of sexual
morality is the main and underlying cause of the low and anti-social condition
of the race at the present time." And how does Hoffman measure this low
standard of sexual morality? "The rate of increase in lynching may be
accepted as representing fairly the increasing tendency of colored men to commit
the most frightful of crimes." He concludes with a stern warning: "Intercourse
with the white race must absolutely cease."

Hoffman was no marginal figure. A book review published by the American
Negro Academy in 1897 called Race Traits the most important book on
American race relations since Uncle Tom's Cabin. As chief actuary for
Prudential, Hoffman defined African Americans as uninsurable risks. Two decades
later he would help lead the first great fight against national health

There were, of course, voices on the other side.
African Americans struggled to answer the critics in conferences, monographs,
and books. They told the story of free men and women struggling to make new
lives for themselves after the Civil War despite violence, poverty, and
repression. W.E.B. Du Bois, for example, took on historians like Bowers directly
in his extraordinary Reconstruction, published in 1935. But as Du Bois
lamented, his colleagues politely ignored his revisions. To the American
majority, real African Americans were invisible, hidden by scary fables about "low
standards of sexual morals." Americans set liberalism aside and constructed
their apartheid.

The great twentieth-century civil rights movement should be read in the same
moral context. It was more than a battle about southern institutions. It was a
religiously inspired movement that drew on a very different American moral
tradition and forced white Americans to revise their racial images.

Now the old stigmas are back, revived by the latest round of culture wars.
They glint through contemporary stereotypes about crime, welfare, teen
pregnancy, and underclass immorality. Amid a renewed crusade against vice, old
racial images reintroduce a prefabricated racial "them."

American cities have always gathered young toughs of every nationality and
color. Now, a growing literature runs criminals together with poor people, turns
them black, and dubs them a menacing underclass—the ultimate amoral them.
Incredibly, the construction stands for an entire race. In The End of Racism,
Dinesh D'Souza blurts out what most of his colleagues have the wit to remain mum
about: It is entirely rational for city dwellers to treat all black men as
threatening members of an immoral and predatory underclass. For "taxidrivers,
storekeepers, and women," writes D'Souza, "the prejudice is warranted.
In this context, a bigot is simply a sociologist without credentials."
Finally, "discrimination today is . . . based more on reality than on
illusion." The formula is familiar. Construct a stereotype, project it onto
an entire group, take protective action.

What we get is injustice and illiberality. Take, for example, what may be
the most active battle line in the contemporary morality crusades, the war on
drugs. African Americans constitute 12 percent of the population and an
estimated 13 percent of American drug users. They account for 35 percent of the
arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of all convictions for drug possession,
and a whopping 74 percent of all prison sentences. A staggering number of young
black men pass through the judicial system (read, jail) as a consequence of the
drug war and its biases. The effect is to clear the city streets of young black
men (and tough mandatory sentences will keep them off the streets).

To be sure, drug abuse is a terrible problem,
although by most indicators, alcohol causes more damage—more days lost from
work, more violence, more death. Come to think of it, everything we hear about
drugs, our great-grandparents once heard about alcohol. Drinking too was a
depraved practice pushed by greedy men who wrecked lives and families among the
dangerous classes while threatening the children of the better classes with
addiction and misery. But today alcohol is a medical problem. In contrast,
illegal drugs perpetuate the old urge to rest societal problems squarely on the
shoulders of sinful people making foolish and immoral choices.

There is still the terrible carnage of the drug traffic itself. Does the
solution lie in following the alcohol approach—legalize drugs and redefine
drug abuse as a medical problem? James Q. Wilson suggests that the result might
well be "less crime," "fewer gangs," and a "more
straightforward public health approach" to the problem. Even so, he opposes
the idea. Why? Because, writes Wilson in Drugs and Crime, "the
government has the obligation to form and sustain the character of the

Perhaps Wilson is right. Legalization is certainly not a simple answer. And
replacing our punitive approach to addiction with a more medically oriented one
is more easily called for than accomplished. But note how our allegedly secular,
amoral society places drug legalization off the policy agenda. Few politicians
could get away with so much as publicly weighing the pros and the cons about
fighting our most important moral fight. And so we are left running in an
unhappy circle: The demilitarization of the drug war is off the table because
the state should set a moral example and shape the character of its citizens.
But the government's enforcement system is deeply biased—13 percent of the
users supply 74 percent of the inmates. And programs that might offer
alternatives, expand economic opportunities, and promote social justice are
derailed partially by the pervasive, biased stereotypes about crack heads and

Of course, there is an entirely different side to the American racial story.
The flourishing of black artists, writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr., "may truly
be the renaissance to end all renaissance." And never mind the alleged
underclass. Carol Stack's lyrical Call to Home portrays profoundly
stable family networks stretching across generations, reaching from northern
cities to southern roots. She pictures communities of sophisticated urbanites
and their rural kin struggling with wisdom and patience against poverty and
racism. In a book soon to be published by the Russell Sage Foundation, Kathryn
Edin and Laura Lein offer a striking portrait of hard-working urban welfare
recipients struggling to get by in Making Ends Meet. They join an
already large and growing pile of books and articles that expose the bigoted
racial stereotypes for what they are.

These eloquent accounts are so hard to hear because they are drowned out by
the moralizer's message. As long as the American master narrative is one of
declining values and a threatening amoral them, it is difficult to see real
fellow citizens through the images of misbehavior and predation. It is precisely
this framework that takes a relatively small program like Aid to Families with
Dependent Children and blows it up into 40 million indolents lounging in a cart
while the rest of us push hard to give them their ride. (USA Today featured
this bromide from Senator Phil Gramm as a front-page explanation of the 1994
midterm election results.) The patient responses that fill journals like The
American Prospect
with charts and tables are swamped by the larger image of
sinking values, moral depravity, and the irresponsible them.


But don't we face an unprecedented moral crisis? No. And constructing our
policy problems as moral meltdowns make them far more difficult to address.

Start with violent crime. The most reliable statistics are for murder (which
unlike, say, spouse abuse, is tough to hush up). Yes, the murder rate is high.
In 1995 it was double the rate of 40 years earlier. Murders in New York City are
up more than 500 percent since 1960. While other crimes are more difficult to
track precisely, they roughly shadow the homicide rate. And according to some
analysts, the rise in random violence, like drive-by shootings (instantly
flashed in our faces via television), amplify popular anxiety about public

Yet the picture of a predatory class awash in ever more violence is
misleading. The murder rate last year was precisely what it was 25 years ago—and
down 10 percent from the peak in 1980. The murder rate was higher in 1933 than
it is today. (And talking about social pathology, the 1933 rate included 28

The language of looming crisis and lost control are all long-standing
features of urban life. Fear of the dangerous classes marked each stage in the
evolution of the urban political economy. Abraham Lincoln warned in 1838 of the
"outrages committed by mobs" and "the increasing disregard for
law which pervades the country." A half century later, Dewitt Talmage, a
celebrated nineteenth-century preacher, put it this way, "Boys and girls
will play in the streets . . . without police protection" only when
Christians take up arms against "the sins of the city." Crime waves,
crime panics, and cries for our lost morals are as old as the cities.

Instead of sermonizing and demonizing, a sensible policy would focus on both
punishing criminals and addressing the causes of crime—"tough on
crime, tough on the causes of crime," as British Labor leader Tony Blair
puts it. Perhaps some liberals and progressives were queasy about punishment in
the past. But most now recognize that crime makes life in poor neighborhoods
especially difficult. That, after all, is where most of the victims live. In
Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, Jacqueline Jones quotes one black woman
on raising her family in Washington, D.C., during the 1920s: "I have lived
here long enough to know that you can't grow a good potato out of bad ground.
This sure is bad ground."

A sensible crime policy also has to address a vast array of underlying
causes that run a wide policy spectrum. First, there is the sheer firepower
available in America: lots of guns, faster guns, more powerful guns. Almost
three million handguns were manufactured and marketed in the U.S. in 1993.
Second, it is time for a sustained, national reevaluation of the war on drugs.
Our public policies have succeeded in making them scarcer, more expensive, and
ironically more lucrative (though wealth is an illusion for most of the young
men in the drug business). Third, we face the still more difficult problem of
declining demand for unskilled labor. Job growth has always been cyclical, but
the postindustrial economy wipes out a major traditional track out of poverty.
(And as articles in this magazine have repeatedly demonstrated, the Federal
Reserve's crusade against inflation successfully chokes off job growth before
employers are reduced to calling on the long-term unemployed.)

The features of an enlightened crime policy stretch on—better
education, job training, urban infrastructure, a decent minimum wage. In the
long run, these are the kinds of reforms that create a safer and more just
society. But the moralizers' message—the resurrection of the dangerous,
depraved, urban them—pushes these possibilities right off the policy

Well, what about sex? The preachers positively
wallow in their denunciations of the pelvic sins—and here the academics
gnash their teeth as loudly as the fundamentalists. The jeremiads all begin with
the same premise: We are reaping the bitter harvest of the permissive 1960s
culture. But the moralizers disagree on the consequences. Reading from political
right to left, we get denunciation of homosexuality, abortion, promiscuity,
illegitimacy, teen pregnancy, the collapse of marriage, and kids without dads.

Amid these hot-button issues, one theme gathers broad support: traditional
families. Alarm is spreading about the growing number of children being raised
by a single parent. The 1990 census puts the figure at 28 percent of all
children and 60.6 percent of African American children, up from 21.5 percent and
51.9 percent respectively in 1980. Even sensible moderates gulp hard at those
numbers. Surely, concludes the conventional wisdom, this is a genuine moral
crisis. Or is it?

Today, divorce is the largest factor, accounting for 40 percent of all the
single-parent households in 1990. We live in a "divorce culture,"
writes David Blankenhorn in his widely cited book Fatherless America.
Marriage, according to Blankenhorn, has become "old fashioned, beleaguered,
even quaint—a way of life primarily suitable for older or boring people."
Somehow, we have got to seize our norms and restore the old marriage culture.
But according to the 1990 census, more than 79 percent of the households include
a married couple, down undramatically from 82.5 percent a decade earlier.
Divorce culture? Hardly.

Yet look at the familiar political result. Once again a large, righteous,
properly married audience is primed to tsk at (and regulate) the immoral
minority that threatens the social order with its promiscuous behavior. Michigan
Governor John Engler has gotten the policy crusade rolling with a proposed law
that makes divorce more difficult. Supporters of such laws rest their case on a
simple maxim: Divorce is bad for kids.

Of course, not all marriages work and not all families are good for
children. The new proposals dust off the old divorce loopholes—alcohol,
drugs, cheating, physical abuse, mental abuse. Count on prolonged arguments
about what exactly constitutes mental cruelty these days. Defining mental abuse
points to the buried question that lies at the very heart of the issue: What is
a proper family? What is the social institution we are trying to revive?

Beneath the clamor for getting both parents under the same roof lies the
agitated matter of how the family ought to be organized. Consider the range of
strongly felt contemporary views. On the one side, conservative Christians
insist that "a woman's call to be a wife and mother is the highest calling."
Reverend Jerry Falwell spells out the implicit organizational chart. God intends
"the husband . . . to be the decision maker. . . . Wives and children want
to follow." For some conservatives, men who cook dinner or women who pursue
careers are violating divinely ordained gender roles. Across the cultural
spectrum, the organizing statement of the National Organization of Women offers
a different perspective: "A true partnership between the sexes demands a
different concept of marriage, an equitable sharing of responsibilities of home
and children and economic burdens." And still further along on the American
cultural spectrum, Heather has two moms.

What has happened is a lot more complex than the images of rampant
promiscuity imply. Rather, we have lost our consensus about the nature of the
family—or, more precisely, about the nature of the women's role. Nor is
this a bad thing. The halcyon days of stable marriage featured dependent women
without significant career options or the real prospect of supporting
themselves. It is far easier to bar the marriage door when one member of the
couple is subordinate and dependent, without any meaningful exit option.

This does not mean giving up. By all means, let us find ways that encourage
stable marriages and strong parenting. Change the tax laws. Strengthen the
support services that help parents. Mend our communities. But remember that the
forces moralizing for marital commitment strongly disagree about what a good
marriage is. And the golden era they recall was structured on an inequity that
is, happily, fading.

Moreover, trying to lock people into marriage without addressing the root
causes of marital breakup is likely to undermine the institution itself—more
couples delaying marriage, declining marriage, and departing marriage without a
formal divorce. Ironically, it is apt to push the rest of society toward the
patterns that dominate the African American community: mothers who never got
married in the first place.

Turning to black families switches the focus from
divorce to out-of-wedlock births. Fifty-one percent of one-parent black families
are headed by moms who never married. Only 21 percent are divorced, compared to
28 percent never-married and 40 percent divorced across all races. The obvious
question is why? The obvious answers are wrong.

The stereotype pictures a soaring rate of children bearing children
encouraged by overly generous welfare handouts. But there is scant evidence that
welfare benefits explain many sins: States with low benefits do not have
appreciably lower rates of separation, divorce, or out-of-wedlock births. More
important, pregnancy and birth rates among young black teenagers have actually
declined. The pregnancy rates fell 13 percent for African American women between
15 and 17 years old in the two decades following 1970. Ironically, condemnation
has been shrillest while teen pregnancy rates have declined.

Nor should we idealize past purity. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning A
Midwife's Tale
, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich computed the percentage of first
births conceived out of wedlock in and around Hallowell, Maine between 1785 and
1812. The result was a myth-popping 38 percent.

Still, out-of-wedlock births are high and growing as a proportion of all
births among African Americans (in part because births among married women have
declined). More careful recent analyses point to a series of structural causes
of the rise in out-of-wedlock births: the great migration to the urban north;
the lack of "marriageable males" in the black community (according to
William Julius Wilson, there are 84 black men for every 100 women in the black
community, compared to 99 per 100 among whites); and the relatively greater
economic power black women have in their relations with black men (partially
because of high unemployment among black males).

However, even sophisticated analyses often overlook the women themselves. As
Adolf Reed commented in a review of William Julius Wilson's The Truly
, women in the inner city have devised a "network of
organizational and institutional forms" that "create meaning and
dignity in lives bitterly constrained by forces apparently beyond their control."
Their marriage and childbearing choices are part of that struggle for meaning
and dignity. This is not to say that these decisions are always ideal, but
neither hectoring them with sermons nor using public policy to punish them is
likely to create strong two-parent families.

What about the kids? Precisely the right question. How do we improve the
lives of American children? The real answers involve sustained commitment to
improving education, health care, housing, and child care; training and decent
wages for parents; jobs and institutional infrastructure for communities. As a
society, we went a long way to improving the life chances of our children's
grandparents—the poverty rates among the elderly have declined dramatically
in the past generation. The question is how to do the same for children.
Addressing that question may go a long way to solving the dilemma of single

The chances of succeeding at any of this are not improved one whit by the
morality project. On the contrary, we will not mend our imaginary community nor
restore a more generous, universalistic public spirit until we put aside the
images of an immoral, unvirtuous them.


Contemporary moralizing lays the burden for American troubles squarely on
the shoulders of troublesome Americans. There is an alternative to this emphasis
on corrupt individuals

Throughout American history, religion has inspired reformers to fight
against legal and economic injustice—to fight for individuals. Moral
crusades rouse Americans to expand rights, overcome biases, attack inequity.

The paradigmatic cases are familiar: abolitionism after 1830, the women's
movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, the civil rights movement
of the twentieth century. Each invoked a higher morality to challenge exclusion
and injustice. But perhaps this different kind of moral crusade is most clearly
illustrated by a less familiar case.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the social gospel movement
self-consciously emphasized the moral responsibilities of the powerful toward
the poor. Those who profited from the new economic order were accountable for
the burdens it placed on their workers. As Walter Rauschenbusch, the best-known
author of the movement, put it: "During the great industrial crisis in the
'90s, I . . . could hear virtue crackling and crumbling all around. If anyone
has a sound reason for taking the competitive system by the throat in righteous
wrath, it is the unmarried woman and the mother with girls." Drawing on
religious imagery and language, Rauschenbusch scorched the inhumanity of "our
industrial machine" for the moral pressures that it put on good men and

Charles Sheldon's In His Steps, an extraordinarily popular novel of
the same period, pictured how a midwestern town (Topeka, Kansas) would change if
all its leaders were guided by the simple question, "What would Jesus do?"
There is plenty of silliness throughout the book. But Sheldon imagines the
business leaders of the Gilded Age getting religion and running out to meet
their workers—to shake their hands and listen to them with respect.

The sinking feeling one gets trekking across the tomes and the tapes of the
contemporary morality project comes from the complete absence of even this
(rather feeble) social vision. The poor ought to learn to give back to society—more
church and less crime, more discipline and fewer delinquents. But rarely a word
of how the society and its rules might be biased. Not a hint of going out and
listening to the workers with respect—much less helping them struggle with
the dislocations of economic transformation.

Despite the thunder, American spiritual life is not
going to hell. What all that moralizing does is to organize American rhetoric
against social justice, against progressive politics, against national community
altogether. In an era when many poor Americans struggle extraordinarily hard,
the preachers blame them for their own poverty, turn them on one another, turn
Americans against themselves.

The story of moral depravity is well worn. Americans have survived their own
unprecedented wickedness—many times. The moralizing routine was already old
when the Synod of 1679 published its list of sins. The real threat is not moral
decline. It is what Americans do to their own society in the name of arresting
moral decline.

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